Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
The nineteenth century's answer to Hunter S. Thompson, Alfred Jarry packed a whole lot of living and a shedload of absinthe and ether into his 33 years.
So who was Alfred Jarry?
A man about town in fin de siècle Paris, creator of the proto-surrealist play, Ubu Roi, the first cyborg sex novel and the fake science, Pataphysics. Even if his high-pitched metallic tones and often talcum-powdered face might have grated on you once in a while, the man lived by the creed that "blind and unwavering indiscipline at all times constitutes the real strength of free men" and drank absinthe as though it was going out of fashion.
Like his colleague, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, he was on the miniature side (5'), which made him stand out as he patrolled the gutters of Paris on his customised racing bike, typically armed with two revolvers and a carbine, and sometimes wearing ladies' high-heeled boots. He lived, most of the time, in a garret, with only a giant plastercast penis for company.
Where did he drink?
Like many later surrealists, not to mention Hemingway, Jarry appreciated Les Deux Magots. He would also be found in the cabarets, such as the Moulin Rouge, and classic cafes, such as Le Rat Mort and Le Chat Noir. And, yes, the weaponry came with him. And the bike too.
What did he drink?
Jarry was obsessed with absinthe. He referred to the stuff as "holy water", "essence of life" and "sacred herb", and refused to dilute it with water, a substance which, in the manner of W.C. Fields, he considered unclean. On occasion, he painted hands, face and even hair green in a homage to the Green Fairy.
Yet a Catholic approach to matters alcoholic saw him adopt the restrained diet of 2 litres of white wine in the morning, a few absinthes to get him through to noon, wine and absinthe with lunch, coffee with spirits in the afternoon, then aperitifs, followed by at least two bottles of wine with dinner.
When money got short, he turned to ether and methylated spirits to keep the buzz going. It is frankly astonishing that he lived as long as he did.
Any famous drinking buddies?
During his lifetime, Jarry knew intellectuals such as André Gide, Toulouse-Lautrec and Mallarmé. Yet it was only after his death that his status and significance rose: Picasso would buy possessions including his pistol, acquire his manuscripts, and even make a drawing of him, and both William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard would cite him as an influence.
How did drink change his life?
Jarry died aged 33, of TB, made worse by alcoholism and the resulting malnutrition: towards the end of his life, legend has it, his food intake was restricted to what fish he could catch in the Seine. Without booze, he could have lived to see surrealism flourish and produced ten times the amount of work that he did in his short life.
Any drinking stories?
At the opening night of his play, Pére Ubu, Jarry invited drinkers from his local bar and did his level best to cause a riot. But his style is perhaps summed up by the night in Les Deux Magots when he shot a blank at the window, causing utter carnage, then turned coolly to an attractive woman, and said, "Now that the ice is broken, let's talk."